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Folk Elements in Burmese Buddhism


Maung Htin Aung. Printed and published by U Myint Maung, Deputy Director, Regd: No (02405/02527) at the Religious Affairs Dept. Press. Yegu, Kaba-Aye P.O., Rangoon, BURMA. 1981.

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Contents of this page
Analysis of Thirty-six Lords
Tragic lives of the Thirty-six
Their overlordship
They are anthropomorphic

Author's notes

UKT notes

Contents of this page
contd. from p102

07. Continuation
Analysis of Thirty-six Lords

It has often been stated that the cult of the Thirty-seven Lords is merely a worship of dead heroes, but in actual fact, only a few of them are heroes. Of the hero kings, only Alaungsithu and Tabinshwehti are included, and Anawrahta himself and the great Kyansittha are not included. Of the eight 'mighty men of endeavour' who adorned the pages of Burmese history of the Pagan period, only two, the Brothers Inferior Gold, are worshipped. Moreover, ten women and three children are included. Leaving aside the King of the Gods, the remaining Thirty-six can be analysed according to the following tables:

Grouping by class
9 kings, including the fallen king of Chiengmai, a prisoner of war at Pegu.
4 queens.
8 princes of the blood, including one from the fallen house of Thaton, a prisoner of war at Pagan.
11 in the service of the king, including four women,
    Golden Sides, an official in her own right,
    Lady Bandy-Legs, Lady Bent, and the Lady of the North,
    who belonged to families of officials in the service of the king. [{p103}]
4  commoners, the Lord of the Great Mountain, three times Beautiful, the Little Lady and Master Po Tu. 
    The first three fell into the orbit of the great with dire consequences, but Master Po Tu was a real commoner.
Total 36

Grouping by gender

26 males, including
     (a) one monk, the Lord with the White Umbrella, and
     (b) two children, namely, the two novices.
10   women, including one child, the Little Lady.
Total 36

Grouping by nature of death

11 executed. If we exclude the later Lady Bent as belonging to the Ava period it will be
11 violent deaths. If we exclude the Second Valiant Lord Kyawswa as belonging to the Ava period it, will be ...
    Murdered, 5 (it will be 6, if we include the first Kyawswa).
    Died of wounds, 1 (the Fourth Kyawswa).
    Suicide, 1 (the Lady Golden Face).
    Snakebite, 2.
    Eaten by tiger, 1.
    Accidental, 1 (fell down from swing).
 'sudden' illness or dreaded disease.
    If we include the Second Kyawswa as belonging to the Ava period it will be ... [{p104}]
    Old Man of the Banyan Tree: leprosy
    Lord of Five Elephants: sudden fever
    Queen of the Western Palace: death through fright
    Valiant Lord Aung Din and the Young Lord White: opium overdose
    Lady of the North: childbirth
    Minhkaung of Toungoo: smell of onions and dysentry
    King of Chiengmai: dysentry
    Second Kyawswa: wine overdose
4  Death through grief .
    If we include the Lady Bent as belonging to the Ava period it will be 5
Total 34

Plus the Lord with the White Umbrella and the Royal Mother.
    The Royal Mother might have died of grief, but certainly not the Lord,
    who lived on to see his son Anawrahta restored to the throne.
Total 36

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Tragic lives of the Thirty-six

It will be seen that out of the Thirty-six, thirty-five suffered tragic and violent deaths. Even the exception , the Lord with the White Umbrella, was a tragic figure -- a king who regained his father's throne from the usurpers, only to lose it again; a king who ascended the throne amidst popular acclaim, only to be deposed with no hand lifted to defend him; a king who started his reign with such rich promise of achievement and glory, only to find that his hopes came to [{p105}] naught, and who waited and waited for years after being deposed for someone to come to his aid; we can glimpse a broken heart behind these words to his son Anawrahta, 'I am old to look upon, old in years. Be thou king thyself.'

The tragic lives of the Thirty-six and the manner in which they died roused feelings of horror and pity in the minds of the people. It was gesture of defiance against Fate and Death on the part of the common people that they they were worshipped as gods and goddesses after their death. It was not terror of their supernatural power that caused the people to worship them, for who could be afraid of the Little Lord of the Swing, or of the little Novice, who in his helplessness and inexperience was killed by a snake, or of the Little Lady with the Flute whose melodies cheered a sleeping babe? For that matter, who could be afraid of the Royal Tutor, who died protesting his innocence, of the Ladies Bent and Bandy-Legs of the poor prisoner, the Leper Prince? Or, of the Lady with the Gold Trimmings on her robes of velvet, who ruled over Mindon villages with such grace and kindness, of the poor Drunken Lord, whom his fellows despised but the village maidens loved, of poor Master Po Tu with his cartload of tea?

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Their overlordship

The term Thirty-seven Nats is never used by their devotees; the proper term is 'Thirty-seven Lords', and Lords they were. The Lord of the Great Mountain gained Popa village as his fief from King Thinlikyaung, the Brothers Inferior Gold obtained the village of Taung-byon as their fief from Anawrahta, Captain  Aung Pyi obtained a village near the scene of his death as his fief from Narapitisithu. These were royal lord, but all the others were lords by popular consent. It was for protection that the people made their offerings to them, and they never interfered with the lives of those who were not their devotees. Their overlordship was both territorial and personal. In the vicinity of their shrines all must show their [{p106}] respect. But outside the territorial limits of their shrines they would demand respect only from their devotees and would afford protection and favour fin return. At the present day the idea of overlordship has disappeared, for when the Burmese king fell in 1885, all his lords, including the Thirty-seven , fell with him. However, the devotees of the cult still turn to them for protection and assistance.

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They are anthropomorphic

The cult of the Thirty-seven Lords is anthropomorphic, and offerings of food, pickled tea, toddy-wine, and clothes are made, and some gods have special likes and dislikes. Thus the Old Man by the Banyan Tree dislikes meat and drink, the Brothers Interior Gold, being the sons of a Muslim, do not like pork. The Lord of the Mountain dislikes offerings of Saga flowers, for he was tied to a Saga tree when he was burnt to death, and the Lord Minhkaung of Toungoo dislikes food flavoured with onions, for did he not die of a strong smell of onions? In others words, to their devotees the Lords are real persons.

This anthropomorphic cult has affected Burmese Buddhism, for since the days of Pagan up to the present day offerings of food and even robes are made to the images of the Buddha both in private houses and at the pagodas. In times of national danger disaster the people believe that the Thirty-seven Lords are always with them. Men said that when the Tartar army invaded the country the Lords fought side by side with the soldiers, and some of them were wounded by the Tartar arrows; that the Lord of the White Horse and the Brothers Inferior Gold shared the sorrow and the shame and the glory of the Burmese soldier retreating from the British; that the gilded images of the Thirty-seven Lords at the king's palace shed human tears when Theebaw, the last king of Burma, was taken away a prisoner in the hands of the British army; and that when great fires broke out in the golden city of Mandalay [{p107}] after a Japanese air-raid in April 1942, the Brothers Inferior Gold were seen fighting the fires shoulder to shoulder with the stricken people. The great king Anawrahta might destroy their shrines and remove their images to his Shwezigone Pagoda, the great king Bayinnaung might issue edict after edict constraining their worship, but the gods and goddesses have remained ever enshrined in the hearts of their people.

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Author's notes


Contents of this page

UKT notes


Contents of this page

End of TIL file